Social Media and Rage (The Algorithms That Make Us Angry)

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Another Mass Shooting

This time it was at Michigan State University.

Why?

What caused this man, Anthony McRae, 43, to go to a college campus, which he had no affiliations, and kill three students and injure five others in two separate locations? 

What motivates a Mass Shooter?

What makes people so angry they feel the need to hurt people?

We all want answers to this question, especially the family and friends of many mass shootings and violence victims.

But how do we get answers?  How do we determine the root cause of such devastating acts of violence?

Is it simply too many guns, or is it all about mental health issues?

We need to figure out why we’re so angry as a whole. To do that, we need to take a deep dive into the root causes of hate. Here, you’ll learn how Social Media and rage are related and discover the algorithms that make us angry.

Timeline of Mass Shootings in the U.S.

The Definition of a Mass Shooter


The FBI has no definition for a mass shooting, but according to Britannica, they describe these as “active shooter” events;

“as defined by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), an event in which one or more individuals are “actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area. Implicit in this definition is the shooter’s use of a firearm.” 

Sourced from Britannica

Omitted from the events were episodes of Domestic Violence, Robberies, and Gang violence. It’s not to say that these crimes are not horrific and tragic, they were simply not calculated for the list when they collected the data.

Opinions on this definition vary slightly, but the bottom line is there are so many shootings in the U.S. they need to be categorized.

Statistical data from Wikipedia and Mother Jones lists every mass shooting in the U.S. since 1900. The data shows a total of 141 incidents. Thirty-nine of those incidents occurred between 1900 and 1983.  The rest (approximately 102) were from that point to 2022.

Chart made with Canva Pro by Author

Mass shootings have nearly tripled in the last five decades compared to the first eight decades of the 20th century.

Why have mass shootings increased?

Is it that there are more guns? Are people crazier? More importantly, why are people so angry and what are the reasons?

You’ll notice I stopped at 1983 for the first part of the data. More on that shortly.

The Anatomy of a Mass Shooter; What They All Have in Common

(AP Photo/Al Goldis)

According to Psychology Today, mass shooters have similar characteristics.

  • They are 98% male
  • Most do not suffer from  “mental illness.”
  • Have issues with sexual identity and insecurities over their masculinity
  • Mass shooters tend to be shorter and with poor muscle tone.

Two Professors Weighed In

Melanie Warner, a reporter for Politico, interviewed two professors, Jillian Peterson (Associate Professor of Criminology at Hamline University) and James Densley (Professor of Criminal Justice at Metro State University), about what creates a mass shooter.

The Professors received a grant from the National Institute of Justice, which is part of the Department of Justice, to study mass shooters’ characteristics, history, and behaviors to see if there was a path to early detection and prevention.

The study identified key traits and characteristics that a majority of the shooters shared;

  • Most all experience early childhood trauma
  • Most shooters possibly experienced violence at home, sexual assault at an early age, parental suicides, or bullying at school or home.
  • Have despair, hopelessness, isolation, rejection from classmates, and self-loathing.
  • They may have attempted suicide or harmed themselves.
  • Most desire notoriety and fame.
  • More importantly, their self-hate turns toward a group or a race.

What Happened in 1983? 

1983 was the birth of the internet. All of our lives changed in an instant.

Suddenly the world wasn’t so big anymore.

People could contact anyone, anywhere in the world, in real-time.

You can share information from anywhere. Educational material was available at the click of a button.

The invention of the internet led to considerable advances in technology, science, and industry.

Along with these was an advancement in social interaction.

So far, so good.

What Happened in 2004?

In 2004 four students from Harvard University launched what would become the largest social network in history.

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Facebook was born.

In 2006, Twitter launched, and the era of social media began.

Facebook has nearly 3 billion users worldwide. Twitter, 450 million, to name a few. 

But, with significant advancement comes great challenges and responsibility.

The Good and the Bad of Social Media

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There’s little doubt that the creation of social media was an incredible accomplishment.

Social media allows users to connect and share experiences. The public can post about events, gatherings, and fundraisers or join groups with shared interests and hobbies.

Old friends and distant relatives could now stay in touch from anywhere. 

Advertisers can promote local businesses and items for sale. You can see people’s good and bad life experiences in real-time.

But social media has its bad points.

If you can spread good information, then misinformation can be as well.

The internet allows people to say what they want, any time they want, and social media is the best way to do it. Hateful speech, rhetoric, and racial slurs are commonplace on platforms. Suddenly, people with an evil agenda can reach thousands of users with a single post.

Political parties can spread lies and misinformation without regard for truth and the chaos they create.

Social media platforms claim to have some sort of hate speech or inappropriate content detection systems and algorithms. But even they admit they can’t catch it all. 

It’s challenging to detect hate speech when there are so many different languages worldwide. A greater focus is on English, Spanish, and other more popular languages in developed countries.

So, what’s the solution? How do we intercept and stop hateful speech and rhetoric before it reaches the masses?

The Endocrinology of Social Media

Social media companies have geared their platforms for people to enjoy the ultimate UX (User Experience). What better way to provide this than by making platforms easy to use, fun, and engaging? 

Companies can adjust digital algorithms to send specific information to your feed, keeping users engaged and online. For example, watching videos about puppies will result in stories and links to videos on your home page or a news feed about adorable puppies.

The one thing that social media companies won’t tell you is that they target your feelings and emotions. Thanks to the Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, she revealed (allegedly) the company valued profits over safety. I don’t think anyone is surprised here. Ms. Haugen also revealed that internal communications showed the company knew its content on Instagram (owned by Facebook) was harmful to teenage girls but did little to resolve the problem.

The ultimate goal of any social media platform is to keep users engaged and on the venue for the most extended amount of time. The more people stay, the more likely they are to comment, like, respond, or even purchase something.

How do you get users to stay online?

It’s simple; you target their emotions with algorithms.

What is an Algorithm?

An algorithm is a process for determining solutions for problems and performing computations to resolve them.

For example, if you had a user who constantly viewed content about horses. Tech companies can assign an algorithm to the user so that all content about horses will come across their home page or news feed.

Sound simple, if you like horses. But what are the downsides of Algorithms?

What Does Endocrinology Have to do With Algorithms?

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Endocrinology is the part of medicine that deals with maintaining and managing problems with the body’s hormones. Hormones affect the body in many ways.

The body releases hormones in response to human emotions. When you laugh, are happy, and see pleasant things, the body releases dopamine, giving you pleasure, motivation, and satisfaction. 

However, when we see things that upset us and make us angry or stressed, the body releases cortisol, which triggers the release of adrenaline and sugars into the bloodstream. The effects can be long-lasting similar to a “sugar high” or “adrenaline rush.”

Evolution and the Group Mentality of Social Media

Common sense dictates that if you want to keep someone engaged on a social media platform, you should send them content that triggers the release of dopamine, which makes people feel good and happy. Right?

Wrong! 

What social media companies have studied suggests that keeping people engaged in the content that triggers the release of cortisol keeps users on the platforms longer. Why?

Evolution. Humans are social animals with the predisposition to be in a group. Since the dawn of man, humans have always had a group mentality. We’ve gathered, hunted, and gone into battle as groups. We socialize and celebrate in groups.

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Group Examples

Consider the different variables a person can be classified as part of (grouped). 

  • The country you’re from
  • You’re ethnicity
  • Your color
  • Religion
  • Political Party
  • Language you speak
  • Sports Fanbase
  • Age
  • Sex type or orientation
  • Medical conditions

We could go on. We haven’t even listed actual groups that people can join! You get the picture. Here is where the rubber meets the road.

One of the predispositions of being in a group is DEFENDING THE GROUP!

It’s evolution. Our instincts tell us to defend the group. No matter what.

Social media has determined the same thing about groups. Let’s stick with the horse example from earlier. Facebook algorithms know you like horses and send videos and related content to your feeds and pages. Your brain releases dopamine, and you feel happy and relaxed. Does this make you remain online for more extended periods? The answer is no.

If your page feeds are filled with negative comments and attacks on your “group,” you release cortisol into your system because you’re upset and angry. This adrenaline rush will keep you engaged longer because of your instincts to defend the group. That is the algorithm that social media has figured out. 

Real World Examples

Recently I listened to an NPR Podcast, “Consider This From NPR,” and the guest was Max Fisher of the N.Y. Times discussing his book “The Chaos Machine.” The book is about the polarizing effects social media has on society. In the book, Fisher describes in detail how social media plays a part in civil unrest.

Image from Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Fisher recalls the violent riots and attacks against Muslims in Sri Lanka in the spring of 2018, which destroyed homes and businesses and left three dead.  People were using Facebook and WhatsApp, among others, to spread hateful rhetoric and incite violence against the minority. The author states that the Sri Lankan government reached out to Facebook numerous times and begged them for help, but their calls went unanswered. The government had to shut down all social media to quell the violence. Fisher said two things happened when the sites were shut down; almost immediately, the violence stopped, and Facebook finally contacted the government. Not to inquire about the violence but to know where their traffic zeroed out.

Another example is the recorded violent attacks against Syrian refugees in Germany. In an article published by the N.Y. Times, two researchers from the University of Warwick documented every anti-refugee attack in a two-year span, a total of 3335. They analyzed every demographic possible for the locations and populations. They found that where Facebook per-person usage was above national averages, attacks on refugees were 50 percent higher than in other areas.

Social Media and the January 6th Attack on the Capitol

The January 6th insurrection is a prime example of what happens when lies, misinformation, and political rhetoric are spread across social media with no checks and balances. In the 2020 Presidential Election, former President Trump got over 74 million votes but lost to Joe Biden, who got 81 million. 

Photo by ALEX EDELMAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Accusations, lies, and misinformation was spread across social media before the vote counts were tallied. Seventy-four million people are a large group, so when people read the lies, they defended the group leader. When the group was attacked, the members defended their leaders’ position.

People who believed the lies defended their “group.” They thought the opposing group had committed a crime. They started organizing immediately to take action to protect their position. Social media was the vehicle used to organize and incite violence. The rest is history.

Algorithms Don’t Equal Free Speech

Congress had a hearing on “Social Media’s Role in Promoting Extremism and Misinformation.” At the hearing, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg stated that his company did everything it could to limit misinformation about the 2020 election and to keep our elections secure. To defend his position, Zuckerberg testified, “We did our part to secure the integrity of our election.” He said, “Then President Trump gave a speech …calling on people to fight. I believe that the former President should be responsible for his words, and the people that broke the law should be responsible for their actions.”

What Zuckerberg said is true. People do need to be responsible for their actions. I know Facebook’s business model is not to incite violence and promote attempted coups. But how do you control 3 billion users? It’s also fair to ask that if the algorithms were different would the January 6th attack happen?

Social media bears a lot of responsibility when platform users promote lies and incite violence. Algorithms are not an extension of “freedom of speech.” Big Tech needs to do more.

How WE Create Mass Shooters: The Bottom Line

Mass shooters don’t spring up from the ground for no reason; they’re a product of their environment. Bad parenting styles, violence at home, or sexual abuse all create angry people. 

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Bullying online or in schools and making fun of “different” people contribute to anger. Anger is the seed that grows into a rage, and rage makes a shooter.

Group mentality divides society. As long as there are people who treat others as them or they, there’ll be offended people. Anyone that is frowned upon for how they dress, what gender they choose, their sexual orientation, religious beliefs, race, ethnicity, or culture is a potential seedling. 

When we create social division, the outliers look for a group they can call their own. Unfortunately, too many groups are made of hate, anger, and fear. Online hate groups foster anger and promote violent calls to action. A lot of mass shooters were part of these groups.

The two professors who researched mass shootings make an interesting point. Almost all of the shooters had some sort of crisis in their lives before the crime. Secondly, these acts were all a form of suicide. Some were unsuccessful, but many were. Where was the intervention?

We need to do more. We need to get involved.

Is There a Solution?

Stopping violence and preventing mass shootings is a complicated issue with many facets. It’s not as simple as removing guns from society. There would still be violence. Arming everyone in the community with a gun is not the answer. That would encourage shooters even more because most shooters are suicidal. If it’s all about mental health, how do you address it before someone acts? Do we transform our Police officers into mental health counselors? They have enough on their plates. We can implement mental health checks for gun permit applicants, but there will always be someone who flies under the radar. There is a starting point. There is one thing that all of us can do to limit the carnage. 

It’s called Inclusion.

Inclusion is a Start

Americans are resilient people. Wherever a crisis, flood, hurricane, or earthquake occurs, Americans unite to send aid to the stricken areas at home and abroad. We all come together to help those in need. We don’t care where they’re from, their religion, or their group. Americans band together when tragedy strikes. We are in a crisis and must band together to end the violence.

The only way to eliminate the group mentality and do away with creating angry, isolated people is through inclusion. We must accept all people as simply, people. Our leaders need to step up and do the same. We need to eliminate bullying at school and online. We need to re-examine the first amendment so hate groups, violent extremists, and white supremacists can’t mask their agendas by hiding under the blanket of the Constitution. 

It begins at home and with social media. Parents need to get more involved and teach their children to be respectful of others. Social media must create algorithms that eliminate hate, anger, misinformation, and calls to violence. It’s the people that made big tech powerful and wealthy. Facebook made 116.6 billion in 2022. Mark Zuckerberg is worth 62 billion. We make these companies rich. The least they can do is spend some of their profits on making their platforms safer.

Reality Check. The Way Forward

Let’s be realistic. We’re not all dreamers. Acceptance and inclusion will take time. It may not happen in our lifetime, but we have to try. 

It starts at the top. Our leaders need to stop dividing us into groups. They must stop the lies and creating fear and hate. How about rereading the Declaration of Independence? Whatever happened to “All men are created equal”? Religious leaders can do their part. If you’re a Christian, you should follow Christ’s teachings. “ let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” (John 8:7). You can’t be “sort of” a Christian, you’re either in or out!

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News outlets share the burden as well. Promoting lies, fear, anger, and contempt isn’t news it’s Op-Ed. If you need proof, read the court filings from the Dominion lawsuit against Fox News. The facts clearly show how Fox News show hosts knew the rhetoric surrounding the 2020 election was lies, but still promoted them to keep viewers engaged. They’re not alone. Every news outlet should report the facts so viewers can make up their own minds.

Let’s do away with the group mentality. We know the link between social media and rage. Now we understand the algorithms that make us angry.  Don’t reach for the low-hanging fruit that baits us into a reaction. 

Take control of your life. Choose your own algorithms to follow.

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